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This article is from the In-Depth Report Learning in the Digital Age
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Education Is for the (Angry) Birds

What the world's most addictive video game will teach us next



DAVID DESPAU

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Many people believe that learning should feel like work. Often when families move to Finland from other countries and put their children in day care, they worry that the schools are not teaching them enough. They say, “The kids are not learning anything. They're just playing.” But that's the whole point: humans learn by playing, and that philosophy is built into the Finnish school system. My kids have a short school day and little homework, yet Finnish students earn some of the highest scores of any nation on international tests.

What can games really teach you? There is a well-known example in Finland. Researchers have noticed that Finnish boys speak better English than Finnish girls. The reason for that observation—which they documented in a number of studies—is that boys play more video games. Because the games are in English, players have built larger vocabularies. The point here is that the boys did not set out to learn English, but they learned it while having fun.

We have never seen ourselves as exclusively a games company, and now we are doing more and more with education. Last year we partnered with nasa on Angry Birds Space, which teaches kids about microgravity. We are also working with CERN to develop games and animations to teach the principles of quantum physics to children as young as four and six years old. Angry Birds already has physics: you learn about trajectories even without thinking much about it. We are taking the same kind of approach with CERN but taking it a bit further so you can get more deeply into math, physics and science in a fun way. Finally, we are branching out into languages, and we have developed an English-learning game for the Chinese market based on the Moon Festival, which has enormous cultural significance there.

I do not believe that the future of education is all digital. It is very important for kids to get to do real things, to work with objects that they can touch and feel. In a few years I believe that more than half of our business will be physical. Already we have a burgeoning publishing business: we have storybooks and activity books based on our video game characters, and we are working on a line of educational toys. What has been done so far to combine the physical and the virtual has been very limited, which is where I think the greatest opportunity lies. There will be tremendous innovation in that area in the years to come.

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